Fire risk may trigger power outage
Ramona residents could have their power proactively turned off during high fire-risk weather this year, under an emergency preparedness plan unveiled last week by San Diego Gas & Electric.
The plan comes on the heels of a report by a division of the California Public Utilities Commission, which blamed the utility company for the Witch, Rice and Guejito fires of October 2007. Cal Fire also found the utility responsible for the fires in a report issued earlier this year.
A package of information about the plan was mailed Oct. 3 to 45,000 SDG&E subscribers within the high fire-risk areas, as identified by Cal-Fire. The potential outage area included in the Emergency Fire Preparedness Program ranges from Del Luz near Fallbrook to Ranchita near Borrego Springs and south to Protrero by the US/Mexico border. Parts of Ramona are included.
Not all the mapped fire-risk zones would be shut off together in the event of high winds. Specific areas would be shut off separately as local weather stations indicate severe conditions, SDG&E states in its fact sheet.
“The criteria for triggering the power shut-off are objective, based on National Weather Service information, and very specific, and all five must be met,” said Stephanie Donovan, SDG&E spokesperson.
“We expect that only about 1,000 to 5,000 customers would be affected by a proactive outage at any one time, and that these events would happen very infrequently — maybe once a year, maybe even once every few years — depending on weather conditions,” she said.
SDG&E expects a proactive outage to last from seven to 12 hours or even 72 hours.
“Typically, a red flag warning is in place for two to three days,” Donovan said. “The outage could last as long as the extreme weather conditions lasts. Once the winds die down, we would restore power, but only after we have inspected the lines that had been shut off to make sure the winds had not caused any damage.”
Donovan said that, over the past several weeks, SDG&E has briefed city and county officials, the county Office of Emergency Services (OES), all the fire chiefs, law enforcement, elected officials, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) and the Public Utilities Commission. They also have talked to community groups such as the American Red Cross and Burn Institute and groups of customers who live in the high-risk areas.
“We listened to their input and already have made extensive outreach to medically sensitive customers and essential businesses in those areas and will continue to work with them as we head into this wildfire season,” Donovan said.
Before shutdown procedures are implemented, SDG&E plans to work with the county OES, local law enforcement and the media to attempt to notify affected customers in advance. County OES may use the Alert SanDiego notification system, also known as the Reverse 9-1-1. In some cases, however, there may not be enough time to notify people in advance, according to the plan.
SDG&E promised, in its mailout, to try to contact residents with life support systems or medical baseline allowances for energy, to find out about the needs, before the system is activated. It also promised to contact businesses whose operations are deemed essential.
The utility noted in its fact sheet that it has made changes to its facilities, which have included replacing wood poles with steel poles and using heavier wire in certain sections of their system in rural areas. Noted operational changes included expanding aerial inspections of the distribution and transmission lines, introducing new equipment, including high-resolution cameras, to make inspections even more precise and ensuring the SDG&E’s Emergency Operations Center can be activated on short notice.
The mailing also included a map of the high-potential outage areas, a brochure about preparing for unplanned outages, a portable generator fact sheet, an emergency guide and a checklist magnet. Customers with a generator or people who plan to purchase one were asked to read the fact sheet so they’re familiar with related state law.
Subscribers were urged to register their cell phones on OES’ AlertSanDiego system by going online to www.ReadySanDiego.org.
Though the measures may come with a sigh of relief to some people, lawyers for the biggest lawsuit representing Witch Fire victims against SDG&E say the efforts aren’t enough.
Attorney Mitchell Wagner said the emergency plan is “long overdue and does not make up for SDG&E’s failure to properly design and maintain its power lines and follow already existing policies to override automatic relay re-closers.
“Properly designed and maintained transmission lines will not come close to or touch each other,” Wagner said, “and the fault lies clearly with SDG&E for improper design and maintenance of the lines which permitted them to slap together.”
To make matters worse, he said, SDG&E violated its own already existing red flag procedures when devices called relays in a nearby station shut off power in lines three separate times because the lines were contacting and arcing.
“Rather than sending an employee out from a nearby substation to check out the problem, as the procedure required, SDG&E had the relays automatically re-power the lines,” Wagner said.
Anyone with questions about SDG&E’s plan may call 800-411-7343 or go to www.sdge.com/fireprep. Businesses with questions may contact Victoria Wirthlin, commercial and industrial services manager, at VWirthlin@semprautilities.com or call 858-650-4153.
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